History of The Antigonish Town Fire Dept

Started in 1864, the Antigonish Town Fire Dept is currently the oldest Fire Dept in Antigonish Co. It was established by William J Beck, a major in the Nova Scotia Militia. In 1864, the Militia first organized in Antigonish by Colonel Timothy Hierlihy and his son Captain Timothy W Hierlihy, was in 1864 the province’s answer to the perceived threat to Nova Scotia from the Yankees, who were engaged in a great civil war. The threat did not disappear when the civil war was over, but continued with the Fenen Raids into Canada. The Nova Scotia Militia of course, lasted until confederation on July 1, 1867, when all militia now came under the new Federal Government in Ottawa.

It appears from the THE HISTORY OF THE TOWN OF ANTIGONISH by D.G. Whidden, that July 1,1867 was the final day for the FIRST ANTIGONISH REGIMENT OF INFANTRY. The officers of the regiment were as follows. Lieut.Col. Hon. W.A. Henry, who was a Father of Confederation. Majors, William J Beck & Thomas M King; Captains Robert N. Henry, Charles B. Whidden, F.S. Cunningham, Adam Kirk, Hugh MacDonald, and C.N. Harrington.

William J Beck who was a major in this Regiment, was born in Pictou, N.S. on March 24,1827, son of Nicholas and Susan (Woodard) Beck and married in Antigonish on April 29,1856 to Mary Ann Harrington. His home for many years according to the A.F. Church map of Antigonish is where Randall Cormier lives on Main St. today. He later moved to Church St. The map also shows the Fire Dept, identified as the engine house located on Court Street between Courthouse itself and the jail. Major William Beck died Oct 30,1881. His son Clarence was also a member of the Fire Dept.

William J Beck came to Antigonish in the early 1850’s and opened a general store for William O Heffernan. This business was on the southeast corner of Main and Court Streets (where the Irving is today). He bought Heffernan out not long after this. He later moved into the eastend of a building erected by Hon W. A. Henry, on the Northside on Main St just opposite of Church Street (Where the Moonlight is today).

In 1863 he purchased a building on the northeast corner of Main & Hawthrone and moved it to a vacant lot on the northwest corner of Main and Sydney Streets where Shoppers Drug Market is today. He fixed up the building and moved his stock of goods into it, and later in 1863 it burned down. This more than likely spurred his interest in the formation of volunteer fire Company.

Any firefighting done in Antigonish at this time was more than likely done by bucket brigade. There was no water system in the town until 1892. It was likely local men who would do this bucket brigade work and most of them would be members of this Militia. It is not know how much drill, The First Antigonish Regiment of Infantry did practice, but there was never, any attack in Antigonish by the Yankee’s or the Fenens, and just maybe going to fight a fire would be at least a break in the dull routine of musketry drill.

Major Beck who was part of the Antigonish merchant class took an active interest in the necessity of establishing fire protection for the town. He organized its first fire brigade in 1864, the Rescue Fire Company, and ordered a Hand Held Pumper that arrived in 1865. Unfortunately it arrived but not the suction hose to go with it. A barn of, Thomas T Trotter on the west side of Court St south of Main St burned, but the new pumper was still put to good use. It was supplied by from puncheons (wooden barrels), which were in turn supplied by bucket brigade from Brierly Brook. The hose that was missing appears to be the supply or suction hose used for drafting water. How the firemen got the water into the pump is a mystery.

The next reported large fire is in 1869, when Robert Trotters’s ,(a son of Thomas Trotter), barn burns, this one on the east side of Hawthrone St. with a lost of 70 head of cattle and a large quantity of hay.

On March 6,1872 fire broke out in the Caledonia Hotel, now the site of the Royal Bank in Antigonish. The fire spread east to the St Andrew Hall next door, around where Wong Restaurant and Shoppers Drug Market is today and consumed this building. The hand held pumper drawing water from the hemlock well beside Saint James United Church sprayed water halting this fire before it jumped Sydney St.

In 1876 Martin Somers took over from Major Beck as he was called and became Captain of the Fire Rescue Company. He organizes a picnic and sleigh ride to Marshy Hope in 1876. One wonders who was protecting the town in case of fire. Martin Somers, the only know member of the original brigade other than Major Beck gets new uniforms for the members. Today we do not know what these looked like, but in 1882 he again receives new uniforms Manufactured by Cairns Bros of New York.

In 1883 John S. O’Brien, a son of James O’Brien became Captain of the Fire Rescue Company. This man was very active in the Antigonish affairs. He only served the Fire Rescue Company for one year as Captain. He later was on the Town Council from 1891-1893. He also served as Mayor of Antigonish from 1903-1904 and again from 1919-1920. He was the Grand Knight of the Knights of Columbus 1907-1908. He also served Antigonish Co as MLA in the Provincial Legislature from 1913-1916

Benjamin F Power a merchant with both his house and store on Main St was the next Fire Captain starting in 1884 of the Fire Rescue Company. David Somers, a brother of Martin Somers, succeeded him in 1894. JJ (Jack the Barber) MacPherson followed, completing sixteen years service with the Fire Rescue Company in 1901. Fire Chiefs or Captains as they were once called after Jack MacPherson from 1901 to 1937 were in order, Peter (Paddy) MacDonald, W.S. (Stan) Copeland, William (Bill) E Landry, James Bonner, James (The Painter) MacDonald, Roderick A (Rory Allen) MacDonald, until Gerry Sears took over in 1935.

Gerry Sears long time Fire Chief was popular with the men for many years, during and following the war in Antigonish.




The Hand Held Pumper was the main piece of equipment for about 28 years until the water system was contracted in 1892 and finished in 1893. It had long handles on each side for up to sixteen men to hold on to and operated it, as one side went up the other down to get the pump in gear. Manning this pump was killing work even in those days. Leather hose was used with spiral seams held together with copper rivets.

Antigonish was fortunate for firefighting in that three rivers flow though the town, the West, Wrights, and Brierly Brook, for a supply of water. For the central parts of the town, there were several cisterns made of hemlock staves dug down to the water table. One was located as stated, alongside St James United Church, one on Court St. by Cunninghman’s forge, and another at the corner of Pleasant and College. In the event of fire the hand held pumper would proceed to one of the rivers or one of these cisterns and a suction hose would be dropped down and the pumping would begin.

The Rescue Fire Company also bought a bell in 1888 to summon the firefighters, with a reported weight 704 pounds. There appeared to be a divided opinion on where to locate it. It is interesting to point out that the on the Bell itself it was Manufactured in Baltimore Maryland by the McShane Bell Foundry "Henry McShane Co. Ltd, still in business today. One section of the community wanted it placed in the cupola of the Antigonish post office. This would not be today’ building as it was not built until 1905. The greater numbers wanted it installed at the firehouse, which then was on Court St and so it was.

In 1911 the bell and the Fire Dept was moved to Sydney St. and the tower extended to be able also to hang and dry hose, an idea that was first proposed in August 1889. This bell was in service until the late 1950’s when the old fire station was torn down and replaced with the current structure. The bell is still in the possession of the Fire Dept today. It was paraded by the fire Dept during the Highland games parade in the summer of 2004.

In January of 1889 the Town on Antigonish had it first council meeting and at its July meeting on that year the By-Laws of The Rescue Fire Engine Company are approved by the town council. It would appear that the fire dept now came under the control of Town Council but would still answer calls in the county, as this was the agreement up to 1985.

At the Nov 1889 meeting of the Town Council, the firemen want the town to purchase a steam engine worth $4500 to replace the hand held pumper. It must have become a public issue as the Town Council called a public meeting in the Courthouse and a vote is taken of the ratepayers, and it is 63 against and 55 for. So began from the very first year of Town incorporation the issue of the firemen always trying to get the town to pay for new gear.

The Hand Held Pumper can still be seen at the Antigonish Heritage Museum, today in fine shape. It was stored in the Antigonish fire hall until 1989, when it was taken out and restored by a committee of firemen led by Louis Grant for the Highland Games parade, in conjunction with the Town of Antigonish’s centennial. It was paraded in Antigonish that year and also in the town of Stellerton. The bell today is stored in the present fire hall. It was taken down in 1960 when the new hall was built and while there were discussions on putting it back up somewhere on the new fire hall built in the 1960’s, it is still in the back on the fire hall today.

A few articles in the Casket mention that the Hand Help Pumper was in use until 1892 when a new water system was installed, and then it use was discontinued or made unnecessary as the installation of the water lines with its excellent pressure would be adequate to fight any fire. As any General will tell you he never has enough troops or any good Fire Chief will tell there is never enough firefighting equipment. On July 5, 1898 Mount Saint Bernard suffered a fire and the hand held pumper was used for hours. JP MacLean father of Butch MacLean told Jimmy Landry a later fire Chief that it was used for hours while relays of men pumped water from Brierly Brook up the hill to the Mount in an effort to save the buildings. Dr Patrick Walsh’s book THE HISTORY OF ANTIGONISH, reports that the firemen are hampered by high pressure which bursts their hoses. There is a fuzzy picture at the Antigonish Heritage Museum, of the Fire Dept fighting this fire. It is hard to make out much action, except some ladders on the side of the building.

And so it was not retired immediately, and was stored in the fire hall right up to 1989, the centennial of the Town of Antigonish. If the Hand Held pumper was not used then how did firemen fight fires? Antigonish’s water system was installed in 1892 and there were hydrants installed in the town. The Fire dept was by then equipped with hose Carts.

In the THE CASKET, June 30,1892 The Antigonish Town fire Dept went to a sports event in Charlottetown and entered the Hose-cart race. This race consisted of

running 300 feet with the cart (fourteen men), attaching the hose to a hydrant , running out 200 feet of hose and coupling the branch pipe. This is today what firemen call a forward lay and the branch pipe is called a wye which reduces the hose size and increases

the pressure of the water leaving the end equipped with a nozzle to further increase pressure. This is what the firemen in Antigonish did to fight lay hoses to fight fires 100 years ago, and is still done today, only with trucks to assist. There is no mention that the local boys won anything in Charlottetown that day.

The new book out on firefighting in Nova Scotia called Smokeeaters says that the Antigonish Fire Dept in 1916 is equipped with three hose Carts and 1500 feet of hose. It also states that, Antigonish had a Hook and Ladder Cart "which gives it efficient fire protection."

In 1918 there was an improvement in service when in the home of Sherwood MacDonald on the corner of Sydney and St Mary’s, a house that stand today, the Antigonish town installed a telephone. Sherwood, if he received a call would go to the hall and start ringing the bell.

In 1919 there was a big fire at St F X University when a student arsonist from Sydney set three fires, all in the east wing of Xavier hall. The first two are put out without much loss, but because of the third fire 300 students have to be fed despite the mess. World War One veteran and fireman Alex MacNaughton and brother of long term fireman Ernest MacNaughton who serious injured fighting this fire. St F XU brings in a detective from Halifax, and he with the help of two students entraps the arsonist into revealing himself. He is sent home at once.

I interviewed, James Landry former Fire Chief on March 23, 2003 and as far as he knows the next piece if equipment is a Ford Model A truck that could pump 500 gallons a minute. It was the only truck the town fire dept had during some mayor fires in the first half of the 1900’s this truck lasted until 1941 when they bought the 1941 international pumper, second hand from the Halifax airport. The 1941 pumper is classed as a ladder truck and boasted an open cab with a fold down window on the front. The ladders were store over the head of the driver.

Some of the fires fought in Antigonish in the years before the World War Two were major fires. Most construction in the Town of Antigonish was wood, and when fire broke out it was a major concern to keep it from spreading. A major fire of this sort would be the Nov 5,1932 fire which started in Chevrolet Sales Co Garage and spread to the following buildings. The MacPhee building, DD MacDonald’s Clothing store, Alex MacIsaac’s barn, at the rear of DD’s, The Casket office on College ST, where Piper’s Pup and a parking lot are today. Two firemen, Al Rutherford and Earl Murray were knocked unconscious, and pinned beneath a crashing telephone pole during this fire.

Another major fire would be the Jan 1937, fire which started in Brines building, and spread through its windows to the next building owned by J Ralph Kirk. It also spread to a business called the Delight Café run by Willie Lee, and on the ground floor McKenna’s Drug store. All through these years the fire Dept was summoned by the huge bell in the tower behind the hall on Sydney St. During this fire there was a winter blizzard hitting Antigonish and even though the bell was being rung many firemen did not hear it, as the wind was caring the sound away. It had to be rung again and again to get the majority of the firemen out. Some Firemen that fought this fire are, Ronan Somers, Bill Fraser, Mike MacDonald, and Gerald Sears, who had a narrow escape when a hot piece of zinc fell on his shoulder from the roof three stories above.

No story of the Antigonish Fire Dept would be complete without the arson story of 1938 when a gentlemen nicknamed "Flex the Cat", started many fires in town and when he was finally caught he was thrown in the jail. The local jail, run by locals who knew everyone, was very casually run and he was allowed to come and go as he pleased and he started more arson fires at night, with no one expecting him to have the boldness to do this. When the jailers and policemen realized what was happening the cell door was finally locked as standard practice. So was Antigonish in the 1930’s.

On April 8, 1939 the Great West End fire broke out in K Sweet’s Hardware store at 2.30 PM and before it was over 16 building burnt down. The Model A Pumper was stationed at Brierly Brook by Whidden’s Bridge. Embers from this fire set the roof of the Antigonish Wholesalers on fire two blocks away but it was put out by spreading salt from their stock, as all regular fire equipment was busy in the West End. The New Glasgow Fire Dept was called to help, but they rolled their truck on the way down to Antigonish and arrived too late to be of much help. There are many excellent pictures in Pat Walsh’s book, THE HISTORY OF ANTIGONISH, on page 220 and 221. Note the absence of fire equipment such as helmets and coats on the men manning the hoses.

On Sept 26,1940 a year after World War Two had started, some Antigonish residents must have wondered if the war came home when Crystal Cleaners boiler on Church St exploded and landed a block away with out harming anyone.

As World War Two, grew into a major conflict, the Fire Dept was faced with a shortage of manpower, and new members were brought on as a result of public pressure, to ensure that the firedept had enough staff. The membership was beefed up to 32 members, up from the usual 15 to 20 members. Gerald Sears was fire Chief during the War years until 1947. Antigonish also saw Air raid sirens installed in town. One was placed at the fire hall and the second on a telephone pole at the corner of Hawthrone and Main and is there today. Alexander (Stuffy) MacDonald was the leader of this committee. This in addition to the bell was how fire Dept members were summoned.

In 1946, Mockler Hall’s roof while it was being repaired caught fire and so much water was pumped up to the roof by the fire dept that it was running out the front door. Some things do not change. Two weeks after this fire, the Dept purchased a 1946 Ford 500 gallons a minute pumper. This was the last new truck until 1968, when a GMC was bought from the Eastern Auto, with an 840-gallon a minute pump.

Frank Smith of Church St took over from Gerald Sears in 1947 and was Chief about four years. Frank was a blacksmith whose forge was also on Church St., where the law office of Chisholm and Gillies is today. A spectacular fire faced by Chief Smith was the Antigonish Co Home on the Lochaber Road, for the mentally ill and other people shall we say down on their luck. Another fire, on Dec 25, 1947 was the Dingle Restaurant in South River, which burned to the ground.

The Fire Chief during the 1950’s in Antigonish was Leo (Long Leo) Chisholm. Leo was a merchant in Antigonish who ran an Ice Cream Stand. Leo was very involved in Antigonish activities, being on Antigonish Town Council from 1952-1960, almost in conjunction with his tenure as Fire Chief of 1951-1961. Leo was also a long time member of the Knights of Columbus for many years, being on many honor guards for the local council.

James (Jimmy) Landry took over from Leo Chisholm in 1961 and was Fire Chief for twenty-one years, until 1981. In 1960 the hall on Sydney Street was torn down and replaced with the current structure opened in 1961. The trucks were stored in the back of Frank Smith’s Forge during construction. The doors the trucks used faced College St. The Fire Dept shared the new hall with the town office personnel and the police dept, until the two latter groups moved into the old post office.

After the new hall was built the dept held a banquet to update their Honor Roll. Some of the members who received certificates are Roddie MacInnis, Carl McVicar, Roy Cunningham, Art Dunphy, Hughie Rod MacDonald, Alexander (Stuffie) MacDonald, Gil MacEachern, Frank Smith, Gerry Sears, Cyril Sears, Ernie Gourley, and Nick Landry.

A problem that affects all volunteer dept is that men are not on duty at the fire station and sometimes respond directly to the fire. Some had their own vehicles and brought their gear (fire coats and helmets) with them. Some men did not have this advantage. Under the leadership of Wally MacMillian with the new hall and room for it the fire dept obtained its first van. It was not intended to be a rescue van but more of a transporter of firemen’s personal gear. It did this job as the current van does. Over the years more gear was installed and the rescue company came about.

All through these years the Fire Dept was kept very busy, and some of the notable fires of these years are 1961’s Jack Mah’s Confectionery, Wongs Restaurant fire, The Celtic Hall fire in 1962, and the 1965 Capital Theatre fire on Oct 21.

The Capital Theatre Fire according to one author was a major benchmark in Antigonish history as the legend has it, that the movie to be shown next, "Fanny Hill" was too "hot" for Antigonish. The actual cause of the fire was that Dr M E Morrison left some sterilization equipment on and it went dry, which resulted in the fire. The hairdresser in the building at the time was Shalia Gillis from East End Antigonish. She had to get out of the building by climbing over the marquee, (The front sign hung by chains). She then climbed on top of the boom of the Eastern Auto Service truck placed under the marquee by Fireman Louie Grant.

Another major incident was a crash of a helicopter, on Oct 13,1968. It ended up on the banks of the Wrights River down by the Antigonish Landing area with two men injured. The fire dept personnel waded across the river and removed both men and took them to St Martha’s hospital.

On May 28, 1972, the horrific MacIntyre Fire on Highland Drive, where four members of one family died, ranks as the worst in Antigonish for lives lost. There were also train wrecks and accidents in Afton and James River. These incidents were at times for the men in the fire dept, memories that they will carry with them the rest of their lives.

On Feb 8,1981 the old 5 to $1.00 store goes up in flames in a huge fire with flames 100 ft in the air. There are no injuries but the building is a total loss.

Donald MacLellan took over as Chief in 1982 from James Landry and has led the Fire Dept for 22 years.

In the early eighties the fire dept was responding to more and more car accidents and some of the methods used to get people out of cars were not very refined. Mostly it was done with axes and pry bars, and this took time. The Dept, which stared a bingo in 1960, under Frank (Pop) Gerrior, used the profits to purchase a set of equipment called the "Jaws of Life". This purchase has proved it worth many times. This set from a Company called Hurst Tool Company, were developed in the United States to remove drivers from accidents at Racing Car Events. This set of equipment was updated in the early nineties with a new motor and also ram attachments for additional flexibility in dealing with trapped victims.

Another addition in 1978 was the GMC truck called the "EILEEN". It was named after long-term town councilor Eileen Cameron Henry who was a champion of the Fire Dept at Council meetings. This is a 840 Gallon a minute pumper. This truck was a very good truck and is in service today. It pumped a lot of water on a bitter cold day of Jan 4, 1984 when the old West End Market went up in flames. It was one of the last three stories building on Main St. and is so badly damaged that it has to be demolished.

In 1985 the agreement of over 100 years came to an end when the County of Antigonish formed their own fire dept for the fringe area. New fire depts. had already started in Harve Boucher, Tracadie, Pomquet, Maryvale, St Andrews, and the North Shore at Cape George. The County of Antigonish had supplied, the Town Fire Dept with a truck chassis and the town, the tank for county fires. The men in the Town Fire Dept who operated this truck responded to county calls. The expression used within the fire Dept, was "on county call’ to indicate that you were on stand by for the county that weekend. The Town Fire Dept purchased a new Chassis for their tank, a 1986 GMC and formed a new Tanker company.

A major fire to start off the 1990’s was on May 10,1990 in the evening when DDMacDonald’s Ltd Clothing Store on Main St caught fire. The 1968 GMC Pumper was stationed in front of the building while the 1978 GMC pumper "THE EILEEN was used to pump water from hydrant on the Corner of College and Main. The fire was contained, but the old part of the structure sustained heavy damage.

In an effort to improve the fire protection to the town of Antigonish the firemen in 1991 led an effort to purchase a ladder truck. It was a growing concern for the Dept on the increasing height of the buildings in Antigonish. A second hand 1971 Ford is purchased in Mississauga Ontario. The firemen raised the money to pay for half of this truck and the town of Antigonish paid the other half. It has a 100’ Ladder with a 840-gallon Hale pump. The 1941 Ladder truck is retired at this time. The Ladder truck entered service in Late 1991. It its first action is a flue fire at Irving MacGibbon’s house on St Mary’s St. It also proves its worth when the CN train and shipping depot on Haley Road, goes up in flames that year.

In 1995, the Firemen themselves purchased with their own funds a 1994 Ford E350 van with a 16-foot fiberglass box to build as new rescue van. The firemen themselves did work on the van that winter, make it suitable for the gear to be loaded on it. It carries a vast array of equipment, including the Hurst 32 B hydraulic JAWS OF LIFE, with all its attachments. Other gear is Scott Air Packs, and storage for member’s turnout gear, a new Bullard Thermal imager camera, a 5000-watt generator and lighting equipment. It has set up in the Van two SCBA’s as walk aways. Firemen can don the equipment on route to the scene if so required.

In 1996 the tank on the 1986 tanker truck was in bad shape. It was an old steel oil tank with an 1800-gallon capacity but it put the truck overweight on the scales even with no water in it. The tank was continuously being welded to stop the leaks and finally Fire Chief Donald MacLellan had the truck sent to Gordon M MacDonald’s shop in Waycocomagh.This shop specialized in Alumumin welding and fire Trucks. The Chasse or frame on the truck was lengthened and the old steel tank replaced with an all aluminum tank of 1500-gallon capacity. This greatly improved this truck. The tanker company is an excellent first response unit which can quickly get a hose line charged at a scene. It buys the volunteer Fire Dept time until pumper units can be bought into action, after hook up to the hydrants.

In the spring and summer of 2000 The Town Fire Dept fought three major fires. The first is on the corner of Bay and Adam Streets, where one person died in this fire. The second is the Heavy Horse barn on the exhibition grounds, and third is the environmental depot. This was John F MacLellan’s former mill. The last two fires are suspected arson fires. The ladder truck is very useful during these fires as it enables the Dept to get large quantities of water up high to knock down the flames.

On June 7, 2001, the Town Fire Dept took possession of a new GMC TopKick Truck with a 1050 Gallon a minute pump. This was major purchase by the town, and it replaced the 1968 GMC pumper, which was sold to the Maryvale Fire Dept. This truck is still in service today with Maryvale Fire Dept. The new truck went into action the first time on Nov 21, of the same year, when a house on Acadia Street, being rented by students goes up in flames. Three students escape this fire unharmed, but a fourth student Jason Barrett is severely burned in the fire. He gets out by jumping from the second floor.

Chief Donald MacLellan retired at the end of 2003, and Robert MacPherson is elected Chief of the Fire Dept. He is the Grandson of Alex "Sam" MacPherson long time

Caretaker of the old firewall.

The Antigonish Town Fire Dept, reached140 years service to the town of Antigonish in the fall of 2004. The Fire Dept put a float in the Highland games parade, with the original town Fire Bell on it that summer.

Under the leadership of Chief Robert MacPherson and with the cooperation of the Town of Antigonish the fire Dept will purchase and take delivery of a new rescue truck in March 06


Bill Landry

March 19, 06